Eating Disorders

The Challenges of Helping a Friend With an Eating Disorder

The increase in eating disorders mostly affects young women 15 -24 years old

Posted Nov 20, 2019

There has been a much warranted and heightened awareness about the dangers and severe health complications among men and women with eating disorders. This is triggered by the staggering growth of the issue in the US. It’s estimated that 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating. Worldwide, the figure is approximately 70 million.

The demographic most affected by the increase in eating disorders, especially anorexia, are young women 15-24 years old. An ongoing study in Minnesota found the incidence of anorexia has increased over the last 50 years only in females age 15-24. Young women with anorexia are 12 times more likely to die than women of the same age without anorexia. Ninety-one percent of women surveyed on a college campus have tried to control their weight by dieting. A quarter reported dieting all the time. Without treatment, 20% of people suffering from anorexia may die prematurely from eating disorder-related complications.

The complicated position of being a roommate to someone with a health-related eating habit

This alarming trend has also caused an increase of concern among women who are friends/roommates and live in dormitory settings with women who may be suffering from an eating disorder. These women are caught in a complicated position, with questions about how they can be supportive. Understandably, they’re becoming anxious, scared, and confused.

My own practice has been affected by an onslaught of calls from girls living with friends whose health they fear for because of restricted eating habits. Typically, I receive a call when a roommate is either:

  • barely eating.
  • eating small amounts in combination with exercising more than she’s eating (this is called exercise bulimia).
  • barely eating and purging.
  • extremely skinny, barely eating, and often ill.

In some cases, my clients are being misinformed by their roommates who are trying to hide the severity of their eating disorder. In some instances, they have conveyed concerns that their roommate’s parents are also being misinformed or may be completely in the dark. Their question is always, “What should I do?”

The answers are complicated.

Young girls witnessing someone with an eating disorder can become susceptible to developing an eating disorder themselves. As indicated by the statistics, an enormous number of girls in college diet, some in excess or when they’re around other girls modeling restricted eating habits. It can make their already challenged (albeit less complicated) feelings about food even more challenging. One client went from having no issue at all with food, to counting calories after living with a roommate with anorexia.

Roommates also may experience feelings of anxiety and fear that something terrible health-wise is going to happen under their “watch.” They may have learned in health class or read in a magazine about the severe health-related consequences of eating disorders. One client has been supporting a friend in an “end stage” treatment center. These young women know a lot about the complications of disordered eating. They are vulnerable to becoming preoccupied with concerns for friends, which can adversely cause loss of sleep, mood change, and impaired concurrent focus on their schoolwork or other areas of their lives.

Typically, young women with eating disorders want to keep their disorder secret, and will deny it if confronted. On the flip side, if too much attention is paid to it, that can backfire as well. The problem is that the brain is not operating rationally. So, rational conversations about healthy eating from well-meaning friends rarely have the impact one would hope for.

How to be a supportive roommate without losing sight of your own life

There is no proven formula, but I’ve recommended a few approaches to clients that may work for you.

The first step is to try to unburden the roommate from feeling responsible, while simultaneously trying to get help for the person with the eating disorder.  I recommend that the roommate attempt to contact the parents (alone or in a group) to express her concerns. She can request anonymity in the hope that the parents will protect their friendship. This may not be possible, but the priority needs to be on the health needs of the friend, which is more important than how it may impact the friendship.

If there is a group intervention, all the friends would have to support each other after they delegate the responsibility of care to the parents. It’s important for them to unburden themselves so they can begin to re-focus on their own lives and studies. They should work together to reinforce healthy eating habits with each other. It will be difficult, but they need to try to stop worrying about their friend’s health and safety and avoid getting caught up with any similar eating behaviors themselves.

It’s important to remember that, as alone as you may feel, you’re not. There are adults around and no one person is ever your personal responsibility, no matter how scary the situation may seem. There are also counseling centers on every campus that employ qualified counselors who can help people with eating disorders, and friends and roommates who care about them.

References, Eating Disorders Statistics, Eating Disorders Facts and Statistics, Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders

Source: Shuttersto Source: Shutterstock, Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders